Website Builders for Indexers The quest for fast, cheap and good
By Carol Reed Spring 2012
“Website builders” is a pretty broad category for software products. At one end of the spectrum you’ll find packages that are powerful but training-intensive; at the other end are the drag-and-drop applications targeted to non-designers. At the spring meeting, we discussed the features, benefits, and challenges of inexpensive drag-and-drop website builders.
When we set out to update the Heartland Chapter website, we knew we needed to find web design software that was easy to learn, since it will be maintained on a volunteer basis by indexers with frequently hectic schedules; it would also need to be inexpensive or free, since the chapter runs on a lean budget. In addition, we needed a builder that would give us a reasonably professional-looking design. We wanted fast, cheap, and good (not “pick two,” as the old adage goes)—basically, the same things most freelance indexers are looking for when we create our business websites.
Pros & cons of inexpensive, easy builders
There are a number of free website builders on the Internet. Many are easy to learn, promise to make maintenance and updates simple, and offer cheap or inexpensive hosting. The potential downsides are vendor or third-party advertising, the cost of hosting and domain registration, and design limitations. These downsides are understandable; after all, companies need to make money somehow, and any software that targets non-designers is going to be a bit of a one-size-fits-all approach to design. The challenge is finding the combination of benefits and limitations that works for you.
To find a builder that best fits your needs, start by checking software review sites such as cnet.com and playing around with demos of a few builders. For the Heartland site, we chose Weebly, so that’s what I’ll use as a representative package to discuss features you’re likely to find.
With any website builder, the design process is the same. You start by choosing a design template, creating your pages and navigation structure, placing text and graphic elements onto the pages, and adding and formatting your content.
Look for a builder that makes it easy to “rearrange the furniture” during your design process. Weebly’s drag-and-drop interface makes it a breeze to change your template or page hierarchy, and changes you make to your page hierarchy are automatically updated in the navigation tabs. Pages can be visible in the navigation tabs or hidden. For example, the online version of this article is actually a hidden website page; you don’t see it in the navigation tabs, but if you click on the link in the article index, you’re “here” on the page.
As you format your content, you’ll find that the formatting limitations in any builder are a mixed blessing: fewer choices means less temptation to over-format and clutter your design; however, you may want to do some formatting that isn’t a standard feature of the program. That’s why it’s important to play around with demos. Make sure the design limitations are ones you can live with, or ones you can get around with a little custom HTML.
Because the Heartland Chapter website is intentionally simple, we didn’t run into too many design limitations in Weebly. However, if you understand the basics of HTML, you can work around many limitations. Weebly provides a “custom HTML” element that you can drag onto a page in the same way you can drag a photo or text element. Into the custom HTML element you can paste code that you’ve copied from elsewhere or created from scratch.
Let’s say you want to include one of the many widgets, search boxes, or video clips available online. Most of these provide snippets of HTML code that can be copied and pasted into the custom HTML element. Or perhaps you want to create a numbered list but it’s not a standard feature of your builder. You can google “HTML numbered list” and find that a user somewhere has posted the code you need. You can also write code from scratch. W3schools.com provides starter code for a variety of functions, and you can create and test your HTML snippet before placing it into the custom HTML element.
Questions to ask when choosing a builder
As you compare builders, ask:
Are the design limitations workable for me? Do they provide a custom HTML feature for workarounds?
Can I live with their vendor advertising policy? Do they require a line with their name at the bottom of each website page, or third-party ads? If I want to eliminate the ads, how much does it cost?
Am I required to use their hosting or domain registration? If so, compare costs before signing up.
Is the company established enough to be there 2–3 years from now? (Then cross your fingers.)
Do I have control over my HTML files? Make sure you have an independent backup of your current files so they’re transferrable in case anything happens to your software or hosting provider.
As I said at the outset, we’re on a quest for fast, cheap, and good. Once you’ve found a website builder that helps you create a decent design at the right price, the rest of “good” is up to you. Understanding your audience and meeting their needs is critical to the success of your website, regardless of the tools you use.
Before starting on your website design or redesign, spend time thinking about your audience and their needs. The editors, authors, and publishers we work with have a particular set of stresses in their jobs. What frame of mind are they in when they visit your website? What are they looking for? How can you help them?
I’ve listed a few good references on user-centered design at the end of this article. Many of them echo the same basic advice for serving any online audience:
Keep your text short and to the point! Avoid “happy talk” and instructions.
Use your page titles as micro-content. That’s what shows up in search results and tells your users whether your page will answer their questions.
Use straightforward headers and titles; avoid clever headings that don’t reflect the content.
Write pyramid-style, like journalists do. Users will scan the first sentence and decide whether they should continue reading.
Use keywords at the beginning of headings and paragraphs. This helps users scan content and also helps search engines determine what each page is about.
Keep the graphic design simple. Make it easy to scan, and make the hierarchy of information visually obvious.
View your website on different browsers and devices.
Finding the right website builder simplifies the design process so you can focus your time and energy on meeting your audience’s needs. Fast, cheap, and good are definitely possible with the right tools and the right focus.
Boxes and Arrows, http://www.boxesandarrows.com/.
Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think! A Commonsense Approach to Web Usability, 2e. New Riders Press, 2005.
Morville, Peter, and Louis Rosenfeld. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, 3e. O’Reilly Media, 2006.
Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability. Peachpit Press, 1999.